Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press
The Houston Rockets were active in this free agency period, as were the Rockets fans on Twitter. With the most amount of cap space in the league heading into free agency, everyone knew Houston was going to be a player, but to what extent? Here are a few things to understand going into the Rockets Free Agency moves.
Over the last three season the Rockets have won a total of 59 games, the Phoenix Suns have won 160. Last season, the Milwaukee Bucks won 58 games in the regular season. The Rockets have had seven first-round draft picks in the past three seasons. In 2021, they drafted second. In 2022, they drafted third, and in 2023 they drafted fourth. This has not been a good Rockets team by any measure. However, Houston has hit on more than half of their first-round picks in the last three seasons and the time has come to take this roster seriously.
General Manager Rafael Stone made the first step this offseason by firing head coach Stephen Silas and hiring Ime Udoka. Udoka spent time as an assistant in the NBA from 2012 to 2020 between San Antonio and Philadelphia. In 2021, he was tabbed as the next head coach of the Boston Celtics. In Udoka's entire NBA coaching career, he has yet to miss the playoffs. Among other things, this is why Udoka was at the top of the Rockets board during the coaching search.
As I read multiple times online this weekend, "How is this hard to believe the Rockets would drastically change a 20-win team?" There is a lot of merit to this thought. Did Houston nail every move? A lot would argue they did not. However, did Houston get significantly better in 72 hours? Yes, they absolutely have.
The Rockets had the youngest roster in the league. After adding 20-year old guard Amen Thompson at pick four in this draft and, arguably the steal of the draft, 18-year old forward Cam Whitmore at pick 20 to the roster it was time to bring some veterans into the room and start building around the young core. That is exactly what Houston did.
The first move was for Toronto Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet. VanVleet is coming off a season where he averaged 19 points, seven assists, and four rebounds per game. VanVleet is the point guard and leader Houston has been looking for. Previously, the point guard position was run by Kevin Porter Jr, but that was more out of necessity than fit. VanVleet is a true-to-form point guard averaging a 5.3 to 1.7 assist to turnover ratio for his career. He also brings two more layers to this Rockets team. He is a noted wing defender who bolster the defensive team rating of the Rockets. VanVleet is also a sneaky good three point shooter. With the amount of ball movement the Rockets will show this season, one of VanVleet's strongest points of emphasis, he will bring offensively is his ability to shoot open threes. On catch and shoot, open, three point shots, VanVleet is shooting 45%. He brings high basketball IQ, championship pedigree, and work ethic to this young Rockets squad that is searching for that leadership.
For those who are mad about the amount of money Houston gave VanVleet on this contract, which is a three year deal worth $130 million, the contract is not fully guaranteed, as the third year of this contract is a team option. With that being said, Houston does have flexibility in the future with VanVleet and his contract, which will work well for them as the league cap room continues to grow over the next few years under the new CBA agreement.
The second move that Houston made was for Grizzlies' forward Dillon Brooks. This signing for Houston was great. Houston got Dillon Brooks to sign a four year, $80 million contract. Dillon's contract is front loaded, which means his yearly salary decreases over time instead of the traditional increasing over time. The layout of his contract will also give Houston excellent flexibility moving forward.
What does Brooks bring the most to this team? Defense. That's the short answer. Brooks is widely regarded around the league as an elite defender. This was most noted last season when Brooks was voted to the NBA All-Defensive Team. At 6'7", 220 pounds, Brooks has ability to step out and guard the wing positions, while also being able to defend the opposing team's small forward or power forwards. Brooks also brings a level of competitive spirit to Houston, as well as someone who can play with a chip on their shoulder about as well as anyone. Brooks is not afraid of anyone and will not back down from a challenge, a personality trait this Rockets team can easily grasp.
Lastly, the Rockets also signed center Jock Landale from Phoenix and forward Jeff Green from the Nuggets, who spent one season in Houston back in 2019. Landale brings much needed center depth to this squad. He will slide in with the second team. Green is a veteran signing for Houston. Green might not see a great deal of time on the court this season, but that's not where he'll earn his money. He is going to earn his contract for all the things he can bring to this team off the court. How to prepare for games, how to keep their body in great shape for the longevity of the season and career. Green will also help raise their basketball IQ and be an extra coach on the bench.
The most frustrating part of the free agency period so far, as best I can tell online, is the return that we did not get on the trades we made. The Rockets had 10 players on their roster that were age 22 or younger. It was time for them to trim that number for depth and playing time, and that's exactly what they did. So far, the Rockets have dealt Usman Garuba, TyTy Washington, Kenyon Martin Jr, and Josh Christopher. Rockets fans were sad to see this group go, as they were part of the post-Harden rebuild. However, this was the group of players, out of the 10, that didn't show the flashes or ceiling the other six did and a decision had to be made. After all the trades had gone through the Rockets will have netted absolutely nothing from these four players. Many argue the Rockets gave them away for nothing. I believe in a micro sense that is certainly a point you can make, however I would urge Houston fans to look at the macro of these moves. The macro outlook is that they trimmed down the young core to the players that have the highest ceiling and will play the most for this team moving forward.
Rockets fans may not have enjoyed every move for one way or another, but you can not argue or deny that this Rockets team got significantly better in the span of 72-hours. As of this article the Houston Rockets depth chart should look like this:
PG - Fred VanVleet, Amen Thompson
SG - Jalen Green, Kevin Porter Jr
SF - Dillon Brooks, Cam Whitmore, Jae'Sean Tate
PF - Jabari Smith Jr, Tari Eason
C - Alperen Sengun, Jock Landale
This is the beginnings of a team that can go from winning 59 games over three years, to competing for playoff spots.